Dale Bassett

Fresh thinking can free government from quango control

Fresh thinking can free government from quango control
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In a speech to Reform this afternoon, David Cameron argued that the growth of the so-called quango state represents “a serious accountability problem with our political system”. Quangos – the non-Whitehall but taxpayer-funded bodies responsible for much day-to-day government – are unaccountable, expensive and do not deliver what they promise. Last year, their funding increased at a faster rate than the rest of government, and they now cost at least £35 billion a year to run.

Of course the state of the public finances makes it imperative that the expense of quangos is tackled. But this is about more than just money. It is about how we should be governed. The appeal of an “independent” body to tackle a thorny policy issue or implement a politically-unpopular decision is entirely understandable. However, a problem occurs when the accountability link between these bodies and elected MPs is broken.

Mr Cameron’s emphasis on transparency is encouraging – he is right to say that publishing quangos’ budgets will encourage more responsible use of public money. It is good that he advocated increased Ministerial responsibility and agreed with Andrew Haldenby that, in some cases, policy decisions should be taken back into government departments.

There are, however, solutions other than new public bodies, even for more technical or regulatory roles where political independence is necessary. If Mr Cameron really wants to tackle the quango state, he should think about new mechanisms to fulfil these necessary functions. He argued today that Ofqual, the exams regulator, is necessary. But Reform has argued that this oversight role could be given to universities instead.  

There is huge potential for charitable bodies or even private companies to take on this kind of job. In the Q&A, Mr Cameron praised to Reform’s idea of putting the National Policing Improvement Agency into the private sector, funded by police forces directly.  This would allow other bodies to compete with the NPIA.

An expansion of involvement by the voluntary and private sectors could deliver better value for money and remove the need for government to retreat to the “comfort blanket” of quangos to solve tricky political problems.

Dale Bassett is Senior Researcher at the independent think tank Reform.